Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Young Adult Author Q&A: Matt de la Peña

Critically acclaimed author Matt de la Peña visited Stratford High School recently and talked to about 300 middle and high school students from across the school district. In the high school auditorium, de la Peña discussed his journey from basketball jock to writer as he pulls new ideas and fictional characters from everyday life.

California born, de la Peña lives, writes and teaches today in New York City. The new father has written six well-praised books, including Ball Don’t Lie, Mexican WhiteBoy and The Living. His Houston visit was sponsored by Blue Willow Bookshop, 14532 Memorial Drive, where he held an evening reading from his award-winning children’s picture book, Last Stop on Market Street. The area bookstore was packed with fans of all ages for his reading.

His Jan. 22 talk included high school students from Stratford, Memorial and Spring Woods, as well as small groups from Cornerstone Academy, Westchester Academy for International Studies and Spring Branch Middle School. His SBISD stop was arranged through Blue Willow and district librarians, including Stratford High’s own Lisa Stultz.

De la Peña spoke freely about his “mixed” upbringing: His dad is Mexican and his mother is white. His young adult books offer first-hand insights into issues related to increasing diversity in American families.

He spoke frankly about his published books and how he brainstorms his plots and fictional characters. He uses life-as-it-happens, ranging from the conversations he may overhear on a New York City subway ride to falling in love at first sight with a Vietnamese-American girl at a teenage house party, to base quirky characters on. De la Peña’s characters quite often have unforgettable names – Sticky, Shy and Anh-thu – to match their personalities.

After his campus talk, de la Peña took time to sit down with new Stratford High reporter Ellie Herrmann to talk about the writing process, the feelings behind planning his first series, and the new books we can look forward to. 

Ellie Herrmann, Student Reporter
Student Reporter Ellie Herrmann interviews Matt de la Peña
(Selected Questions & Answers)

Q: You went to the University of the Pacific on a basketball scholarship. How did you go from playing basketball to earning your Bachelor of Arts?
A: I think basketball took me to college, and then, once I got there, I knew I wasn’t good enough to play beyond college, so I committed more to academics. The thing that I loved the most was writing poetry, and slowly but surely, my poems became too long to be poems, and they became short stories. Then I started becoming a reader; I always tell people you can never be even a good writer unless you’re first a great reader, so I think once I became a really, really invested reader, that was when my writing got better.
Q: Do you believe having grown up in California influences your writing in any way?
A: Yes, everything I’ve ever written. I’ve never written a book that takes place outside of California, even though I’ve lived in New York for 10 years.
Q: When did you know that you wanted to write your first book?
A: I think that when I was writing short stories I knew that one day I’d write a novel. So before graduate school, I made a goal of writing a novel. I would never not do it.
Q: The first book you wrote was Ball Don’t Lie in 2005. How long did that process take, to get to the point of publication, and what was involved in it?
A: It took about a year and a half to write, and it took about another year and a half to revise, so I revised it hundreds of times. Well not really hundreds, but a hundred. And then I got an agent, and then the agent sold it; it took him about four months. And then it takes two years after it’s sold for it to come out. Even though the book’s done. 
Q: Your first children’s book was released in 2010, A Nation’s Hope. Why did you make the switch from young adult to children’s books?
A: You know what, in a weird way, you know how I said I started with poetry? It’s like going back to the poetry, writing picture books. You’re going to verse. It’s the rhythm of just a few words. It was great, and now I have a little daughter, she’s only 9 months old, and it’s so cool I have a second picture book. I want to keep doing these, I love it.
Q: You have your first series that starts with The Living. What’s it like [plotting] a series?
A: It’s hard as hell. I’ll never do it again. Have you ever heard of the Twilight books? I used to make fun of those books and now I’m like, that chick is a genius. How did she do all the connecting? That’s amazing! I can’t believe. It was so hard to do, and my series is only two books. 
Q: You live in Brooklyn now. When did you know you wanted to teach creative writing there?
A: That’s the kind of thing that you just fall into, because you’re starving when you first write a book. You have one book out, and you’re literally starving. You’re like, I could either rob a bank, or I could teach a class. And if I teach a class, I definitely won’t go to jail. So that’s when you decide to teach a class. . . I’m never in one place that long, but I do love teaching.
Q: Do you enjoy the traveling? Or is it just something you have to do?
A: I love it, but now that I have this little kid, I miss this little kid. That’s the sad thing.
Q: Where do you draw your daily inspiration for your books and your speeches?
A: Other books. I read a lot of other books. I am always inspired by other authors. And then your memories, you go back into your memories. Or sometimes I do school visits, and I’m here, and I meet somebody who looks sad, and is not really engaging, and I’ll imagine where they’re coming from. 
Q: What is your absolute favorite part about being an author?
A: It’s when you’re writing a book that you think isn’t good, and you don’t think it’s good for six straight months. And then suddenly, you figure something out, and you go, ‘Oh my gosh, now I understand what this book is about.’ And it’s this euphoric epiphany, and from that point on you actually understand your book. 
Q: Do you have any new books coming out soon?
A: I do. I have one book that’s coming out May 12; it’s called The Hunted. Then I have another book I’m starting now that comes out in 2016.


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